I hope Kim Jong-un brushed up on his American geography

North Korea has been threatening the United States with nuclear annihilation for as long as you and I can remember, but a recently-successful nuclear test, a newly-installed leader, and seemingly-specific attack plans have US strategists unsure of the degree to which they must take all this seriously.

The most recent round of threatening exchanges began about three weeks ago, after the UN Security Council agreed unanimously to tighten sanctions in response to North Korea’s third nuclear test. Kang Pyo-yong, the country’s vice defense minister, declared, “If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil, and its followers, into a sea of fire.”

I can’t say I lost too much sleep in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. After all, D.C. is probably out of North Korea’s range – the New York Times noted that “North Korea does not have the technical ability to use nuclear-tipped missiles” – and besides, the city is hot and humid and full of Congressmen, so good riddance.

But in the meantime, North Korea supposedly launched massive cyber attacks against its southern neighbor, placed its military on the highest level of alert (presumably, red), and severed its only line of communication with the South Korean military. And the threats haven’t been all one-sided: last week, the United States signed a formal defense agreement obligating it to protect South Korea from even small provocations, and flew B-2 stealth bombers over the country.

And so, we got another round of threats, these much more specific, and — I have to admit — much more worrisome. In any event, it’s probably worth paying attention if only because it’s better not to be taken by surprise in a situation involving the nuclear capabilities of a short man.

Much like in the previous threat, North Korea helpfully provided a list of targets. Kim Jung-un himself is quoted saying that in the event of a US attack, North Korea would “mercilessly strike the US mainland… military bases in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea.” I count four specific targets on his hit list: Hawaii, Guam, South Korea, and the US Mainland. Which brings us to a game of One of these things is not like the others.

The first three share one feature in common: the targets are entirely in or on the Pacific Ocean, just like North Korea. In other words, Kim’s list makes a lot of sense: Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles must be able to travel 1000 miles before they can travel 2000 miles, so as North Korea continues to develop its rocket technology, some targets are sure to come in range before others. That the targets are so specific and relatively nearby — and not, say, Detroit, New York, and Miami — might lend some credence to Kim Jung-un’s threat.

But what of the Thing that is not like the others — that is, the threat to hit the US mainland? Just last week, North Korea got a lot of attention when it released a photo with a map in the background detailing a “US Mainland Strike Plan”, so you know at least someone is taking the possibility seriously:

north korean us strike plan

You might imagine that the map would be helpful in preparing for the attacks, but the cartography falls somewhat short of specific. Experts generally agree Hawaii is slated for destruction, but it seems Los Angeles and San Diego are in for it as well, in addition to a location that might be Austin… but then again might be Texas generally? It’s not entirely clear from our glimpse of North Korea’s 20th century technology.

The fourth target on the above map appears to be Washington, D.C. This is in line with North Korea’s three week-old threat (quoted above) to turn Washington into a “sea of fire”. That’s very nice — after all, Obama lives there, presumably with the US nuclear launch codes — but as we’ve discussed, from a technical perspective, Washington really doesn’t fit in with the rest of Kim’s list. Assuming an ever-widening range of targets, we would expect the West Coast to come into range well before North Korean missiles could reverse-traverse the Oregon Trail and strike Washington, D.C.

And now we come to the reason I’m starting to worry: the map’s specification notwithstanding, it turns out there is a Washington on the West Coast of the United States, one that is not hot and humid and full of Congressmen and is in fact mild and crisp and full of trees and mountains – and one that I care about very much. It would certainly be a shame if Kim Jung-un took out his map of the United States, picked a more realistic target, and decided the nearby Washington looked like a better candidate than the one much further out of range.

Maybe this is just the encouragement Olympia needs to finally change the name of our lovely state.

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